Would Buzzards Bay by any other name smell as sweet? Growing up in Massachusetts, I enjoyed place names, like Nutting Lake, that seemed to emerge from conversation ("Whadya ketch today? Nutting") or insults ("Marblehead"). Travels since then have introduced me to melodic town names (Alabaster, Alabama) and optimistic ones: Georgia has Isle of Hope, Good Hope, Hopeful, Angelville, Halcyondale, Glory and Harmony.
When I recently asked readers of Worldmagblog.com for their favorite place names, nominees flowed in: Monkey’s Eyebrow and Punkin Center, Ariz.; Bucksnort, Stinking Creek, Sunshine and Yum Yum, Tenn.; Alligator and Soso, Miss.; Ozone, Goobertown and Smackover, Ark.; Beanblossom, Gnaw Bone, Toad Hop and Lick Skillet, Ind.; Spray and Fossil, Ore.; Tightwad and Peculiar, Mo.
Stories also arrived, like the one from the former pastor of Calhoun Baptist Church in Hot Coffee, Miss., who explained that the town derived its name from a country store on a horseback trail that always offered hot coffee to riders: "So they’d say, ‘Let’s stop at Hot Coffee.’" The origins of other names, like Enigma, Ga., are shrouded in mystery.
Good stories probably explain Two Egg, Fla.; Why, Ariz.; Whynot, Miss. (and North Carolina, also); Holy Moses, Colo.; Czar, W.V.; Casanova, Va.; and Knockemstiff, Ohio. Snowflake, Ariz., is said to derive from the two founders of the town, Mr. Snow and Mr. Flake. Chicken, Alaska, may have that name because residents couldn’t spell Ptarmigan. But we might not enjoy the tales behind Belcher, N.Y.; Panic, Pa.; Rudeville, N.J.; and Weeping Mary, Texas.
One reader’s job dispatched him at times to Morrow, Ohio, and he couldn’t resist asking "if they wanted me to go to Morrow today." Kansans can choose to live in Deplorable or Fine City, and Michiganders have an even tougher decision to make: Paradise or Hell, the latter said to sport a sign at the city limits reading, "Welcome to HELL," but without a population marker. A Kentuckian wrote that his state boasted of Hell for Certain Creek and Hellier.
California, of course, has a Paradise, but residents of two other states reported, "We used to have Paradise, but that town is no more." Utah still has Mt. Olympus, but Floridians, not wanting to exaggerate, settle for Niceville. Maryland and Oregon both have communities named Boring, but Oregon also has Hammond, which is heaven for keyboard enthusiasts, as well as the non-euphemistic Stinkingwater Pass.
Some towns change their name for momentary glory: Ismay, Mont., in 1993 temporarily changed its name to Joe in honor of the San Francisco quarterback. Television gave birth to Truth or Consequences, N.M. Liberal, Kan., should change its name to Progressive, but stick-in-the-mud folks there are resisting. George, Washington, is holding on.
Canadian correspondents wrote about Magog, Quebec, and Biggar, Saskatchewan, which reportedly has a sign on the edge of town proclaiming that "New York is big, but this is Biggar." An Alabaman wrote about the supply-side road sign in his state: Equality, 3 miles. Richville, 10 miles. I also learned that some Yakima, Wash., residents relish the name Yakimaniacs, and some of their counterparts in Livermore, Calif., call each other Livermorons.
Many states have their Athens, Paris or Rome, but some town names are less ambitious: Ghent and Helvetia, Penn., or Cairo, Thebes, Karnak, Goshen and Dongola, in the section of Southern Illinois known as "Little Egypt." Maine has Norway, Sweden and Denmark, which makes sense given its cold climate, but also brags of Mexico. Biblical names are common, but Georgians found obscure ones such as Hephsibah and Thyatira.
Still, nothing can beat out a map of Texas sprinkled with joyful town names like Blessing, Camelot, Happy and Smiley, frank names like Looneyville, Gun Barrel City or Cut-n-Shoot, exotic ones like Odessa and Sudan, descriptive ones like No Trees (in West Texas), and wandering, wondering ones like Nameless, Uncertain and Ding Dong.